REVIEW Soccer-Whatever the ending, Qatar World Cup duly delivered

Dec 17 (Reuters) – A World Cup that has defied all expectations culminates on Sunday when Lionel Messi can join Diego Maradona in Argentina’s immortality by taking the South Americans to the title, or France can become the first nation , which has held her since 1962.

Either scenario would be a fitting final act to the first World Cup hosted in an Arab country.

But whatever happened, a tournament that was ridiculed in the build-up and that got off to a bit of an awkward start led to an exciting roller coaster that even the cynics jumped on.

Millions of words have been written criticizing Qatar’s choice to host the world’s second biggest sporting event and the debate will continue long after the last ball has been kicked.

But for a month, the so-called beautiful game, in the words of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, has spread some joy.

The famous names of Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo presented storylines. Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Tunisia caused shockwaves. New characters appeared.

Yet the lasting memory for many will be Morocco’s shake-up of the footballing hierarchy.

Thousands of their fans painted the desert red and turned the Doha market into a corner of Marrakech as the Atlas Lions roared into the semi-finals.

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Harnessing the energy of their following, Walid Regragui’s men achieved victories over European aristocrats Belgium, Spain and Portugal en route to becoming the first African and first Arab side to reach the last four.

France showed a game too far when they hosted Argentina at the spectacular Lusail Stadium, where almost four weeks earlier Argentina’s 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia lit the blue touch paper sheet for an outstanding tournament.

In the space of five second-half minutes, Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari went down in Saudi sporting folklore by scoring the goals to cancel out Messi’s penalty and seal the biggest statistical shock in World Cup history.

Infantino, who raised eyebrows on the eve of the tournament with an impassioned monologue in defense of the Qatari organizers, described the group stage as the best yet. Few would disagree.

The 48 games produced 120 goals, just two red cards and enough dizzying moments to grace three tournaments.

A day after Saudi Arabia’s win, Japan managed to beat Germany from a goal down – a result the four-time champions never recovered from as they went home early.

Iran, amid widespread anti-government protests at home, were thrashed 6-2 by England before beating Wales with goals in the eighth and 11th minutes of added time.

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Late goals and hasty reports for the world’s media were a recurring theme, and the final three nights of group action were a smooth ride on and off the pitch.

Japan stunned Spain in a stunning Group E final that at one point looked set to send Costa Rica and Japan into the last 16 at the expense of Spain and Germany.

South Korea scored in stoppage time to beat Portugal and get out of Group H to the dismay of Uruguay, while Mexico’s maniacal bid to score enough goals against the Saudis to push Poland into second place in Group C ended in failure.

Every continent was represented in the last 16 for the first time, but after such a wild group stage, would it fail?

No chance.

Australia gave Argentina quite a scare in the end, Mbappe blindsided for France against Poland and England’s free-kick ended Senegal’s party at the tent-like Al Bait Stadium, one of seven new stadiums built for the tournament, including the 974 Stadium , consisting of recycled shipping containers.

Brazil cruised to a 4-1 win over South Korea while Portugal did the unthinkable and left Ronaldo only to find a new hero as Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win over Switzerland.

Morocco held Spain to an engrossing 0-0 draw before knocking out the 2010 champions on penalties after Luis Enrique’s side failed to muster a single shot.

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As unpredictable as the tournament was, the usual suspects came together for the quarterfinals.

Some magic from Neymar gave Brazil the lead against Croatia after extra time, only for Bruno Petkovic to equalize in the 117th minute with Croatia’s first shot on target. Almost inevitably, Brazil went down on penalties.

Argentina squandered a 2-0 lead against a Dutch side who abandoned their usual scientific approach in favor of piling high balls into the box to devastating effect.

Vout Weghorst’s goal, the second in the 11th minute of added time, silenced the blue-and-white hordes, but Messi and Co managed a penalty shootout to settle a fractious battle.

Ronaldo became the first man to score at five World Cups but his final appearance, again as a substitute, ended in tears as Portugal lost 1-0 to Morocco in a history-making affair.

England’s penalty curse then returned as Harry Kane’s botched effort condemned them to a 2-1 defeat by France.

Messi, channeling his inner Maradona, inspired Argentina to beat Croatia and few would begrudge the diminutive No.10’s record 26th World Cup appearance ending with him holding the glittering trophy.

Reporting by Martin Herman Editing by Toby Davies

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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